Nerve Stimulation Helping People with Epilepsy

A different approach is helping some people with epilepsy. get their lives back.

Heather Mullins of Topeka can tell you how important that is. She grew up with epilepsy - diagnosed at age 4 - and it grew to take away a lot of her normal activities.

Heather says her seizures would come in clusters. At their worst, she'd have 15 to 20 of them over two to three days. It would take her several more days to recover from them.

Heather went thru two brain surgeries trying to get them under control. She also tried on all sorts of medications, which meant all sorts of side effects. She said it was causing a lot of confusion, memory loss, disorientation and muscle weakness, which caused problems at her job.

Then Heather heard about vagal nerve stimulation, a treatment that acts to interupt what's causing the seizures in the first place. Dr. Ernie Swanson, a neurologist at Cotton-O'Neil Clinic, says, with epilepsy, there's a loss of control within the brain as the nerve send signals from one part to the other. VNS works by a generator implanted in the chest wall sending an impulse up a lead implanted in the neck. That activates the vagus nerve, limiting how seizures develop.

Dr. Swanson says about half of the patients will see their seizures reduced by half, so they'll usually stay on their meds. However, he says they'll hopefully be able to reduce their meds, which will reduce their side effects so they'll feel more alert and feel better overall.

Heather is a true success story. She's cut her meds in half. The seizures gradually decreased and she hasn't had a single one in two years. The main side effect of the stimulator is that, since the vagus nerve is next to the voice box, Heather's voice will go hoarse when the stimulation kicks in. She says it feels like a small tickle or mild sore throat, although she's come to not really notice it anymore.

The VNS is implanted in an outpatient procedure. Adjustments to frequency and duration of the stimulation are done externally.

The procedure has been around about a decade but is becoming more common as more insurance coverage has become available for it.